Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well; go in peace.” (Mark 5)
Does the name Drew Gilpin Faust mean anything to you? She just recently stepped down as the president of Harvard University, and for some years I have found her to be one of the sanest and steadiest voices in our society.
In her farewell address to the university, she recalled rather ironically her inaugural address given eleven years earlier in the same spot. “Inaugural addresses,” she remarked, “are by definition pronouncements by individuals who don’t yet know what they are talking about.”
But she went on to say something else about the peculiar genre of inaugural addresses: they are, as she put it, “expressions of hope unchastened by the rod of experience.”
So in her valedictory address a few weeks ago, she returned to that theme of hope, reaffirming its central role in the life of any great institution. “Hope,” she said, “is implicit in our efforts [as a university] to model a different way for humans to live and work together. … But hope also implies work that is still unfinished, aspirations not yet matched with achievement, possibilities yet to be seized and realized. Hope is a challenge.”
Now, if universities are meant to be in the business of hope (as President Faust said), how much more so should be the church! But if hope is, as she said, fundamentally a challenge, then it is also inescapably rooted in change. To paraphrase Paul, who hopes for things already seen?
Hope looks forward to an altered state of affairs, to a time when the world in which we live will be different. Where there is no change, therefore, there is no hope. And that’s why too often the church turns out not to be in the business of hope after all: we come to church seeking stability, rather than conversion.
Scholars of the early church, however, point out that for the first Christians, change was what they were all about. Their passion for change was born out of the fact that in Jesus, they had finally found someone to whom they could give their ultimate allegiance. Caesar and his surrogates, while perhaps deserving of their routine respect and compliance (out of self-preservation if nothing else), were not worthy of an unwavering loyalty. Only Jesus, as Lord of Lord and King of Kings, deserved that.
And why? Because those first Christians believed that in Jesus, they had encountered someone who spoke a truth that could not be superseded: a truth about the nature of a human community founded in acceptance and compassion that was nothing less than God’s truth about humanity. And if one was going to live out that truth, then it implied the need for some pretty big changes in the way each of us relates to other people in the world.
Jesus enacts that very truth in today’s gospel—twice, no less. A woman who had been suffering for years from a hemorrhage, having heard about this new voice of hope, comes near to him desiring only to touch his cloak. Jesus, sensing the depth of her need, turns to her and in one word—“Your faith has made you well”—extends recognition and acceptance to her of such power that she is not only made physically well, but is able to go her way in peace. The miracle in the story is not her healing: the real miracle is Jesus’ acceptance of her, after she had been shunned as unclean and unfit for years, which relieves her of all the guilt and shame she had carried.
Indeed, at the core of every one of Jesus’ miracles is just such a change. His presence or his words cause a shift in someone’s perspective, and that shift is so momentous that it evokes in them an experience of hope and healing. Hope requires change, and change is the engine of hope. Without it, there is, well, there is only more of the same—and in that there is no hope.
But hope requires something else as well. Hope requires community. In the second healing story, woven around the first, Jesus is on his way to the home of Jairus, one of the leaders of the synagogue, whose daughter is gravely ill, at the point of death. Having stopped to reach out to the woman, however, Jesus now learns that it is too late—the little girl is already dead. Jesus won’t give up on her, however, and goes on to Jairus’ home.
There he challenges everyone’s perspective that hope is lost, telling them that she is not dead but only asleep—in a coma perhaps. And then, going in to her and taking her hand, he pulls her up out of bed. Again, the mechanism of the healing is change, a change in the understanding of her true situation. But here, another element is emphasized as well. Jesus does not go into the girl alone, but takes with him Peter, James and John, as well as the girl’s parents. The healing must be done in the company of others, in community.
And of course, if you think about it, since hope depends on change, and we are unlikely to change except as we encounter and are influenced by others, it’s no wonder that hope likewise depends on community. Which is why, at the heart of the Christian community, is Jesus himself, who is constantly inviting us—like the woman and little girl of today’s gospel—to be healed, which is to say, to be changed.
But not all communities are such motivators of hope and change. There are also other kinds of human groupings, as we know all too well nowadays, which rely on the closed instincts of tribalism to reinforce the status quo, substituting the false hope of establishment and privilege—where there is no change—for authentic hope.
And that is why, it is so important for we the church to be a community of change, which is to say, a community of hope. As we pray in one of the Eucharistic prayers, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” In short, as Christians, we must model in both our individual and corporate lives a vision for the human family that does not accept resignation in the face of suffering and want, but constantly pushes for change and reform.
President Faust, in her closing comments, recalled a beloved Harvard coach who once spoke to an athlete, saying “This, this is what you can be. Do you want to be that?” Those are words that the church is called to speak to the world: to hold up God’s vision of a truly compassionate, reconciled human family and to ask, do you want to be that? Which is, of course, ultimately an expression of hope, because it is at root, a call to change. Amen.